Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is turning 60. Its image of a trapped woman is as potent as ever | Books
I first saw Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in 2009. I remember the barren stage and the entombed woman at its centre, whose utterances filled the theatre and carried the content of the play.
Happy Days – which turns 60 this year – has a stunning and simple premise: a woman, Winnie, is buried in a mound of earth. She remains trapped for the play’s duration, grappling with her predicament as a relentless sun beats down on her. Winnie is in possession of a bag full of everyday items (and a gun) that offer her some distraction. A man, Willie, occasionally crawls out from behind the mound of earth to mutter something in Winnie’s direction, but she is mostly alone.
At the Malthouse, Winnie was played by Julie Forsyth, whose performance enthralled me: her pliable face poking out of the ground; her squeaky yet powerful voice talking, talking, talking. There was Willie too, but Winnie was the fascination. As the late British theatre critic John Peter writes, “Only Beckett could have written this play: a hilarious account of extinction, a short sonata for the dead, scored for female voice and male mumble.”
My novel, The Performance, takes place inside a theatre during a staging of Happy Days. It begins as the audience shuffles into seats and it ends as the curtain falls. My main characters – three women of different ages and backgrounds – watch the play and consider their own lives. A bushfire emergency is developing in real time on the outskirts of the city, beyond the theatre’s air-conditioned bubble.
I never forgot the perfect simplicity of the image of the trapped woman, and its many connotations. The play’s formal austerity offered my novel a useful structural device to contain the swirling thoughts I wanted for my characters. The range of subjects covered by Winnie also allowed me to extract whatever words most resonated for my women, triggering their thoughts and memories.
Like much of Beckett’s work, Happy Days is defined by both its expansiveness and its specificity. It is interested in the nature of humanity, and in the minutiae of the quotidian. It is perhaps most interested in the intersection between the two. This is also the stuff of novels. How does a character make their way through any moment in time, in body, in soul?
This question of scale – what to care about and how; what to notice or ignore; how tightly to focus one’s attention – is a key quandary of life, quite beyond the making of art. As Winnie endures the long hours of her days inside a dying earth, she busies herself with personal grooming and the consolations of remembered literature. Whether her hopefulness is delusional madness or in fact a necessary aspect of survival is one of the play’s many ambiguities. It also offers a strong resonance to our contemporary response to the climate crisis.
In 1979, Beckett directed Happy Days at the Royal Court, London. Winnie was played by his beloved collaborator, Billie Whitelaw. In Beckett’s Production Notebook from this period, he offers Whitelaw precise choreography for Winnie’s gestures, as well as instructions around prop management, vocal tone and staging details.
In the Notebook, Beckett also emphasises the importance of interruption: “Something begins; something else begins. She begins but doesn’t carry through with it. She’s constantly interrupted or interrupting herself. She’s an interrupted being.”
This aspect of Winnie’s character is compelling. It echoes a common experience of early motherhood, for example, when intellectual focus is fractured and a decent train of thought is an elusive luxury. More broadly, the idea of endless interruption (and disruption) can be seen as a condition of life as experienced by anyone but the most comfortable members of the dominant culture. The constraints of gender, class, privilege and race are nothing if not a distraction from a fully realised individual life.
A 2020 revival of Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Happy Days starring Dianne Wiest was cancelled due to Covid-19. Later this year, the play will be staged at Riverside Studios in London after a similar postponement. Directed by Trevor Nunn, it will star Lisa Dwan who is already renowned for her interpretations of Beckett and considered a successor to Billie Whitelaw, her mentor and inspiration. The experience of isolation and repetition at the heart of Happy Days will have a particular potency in the Covid-19 era.
For each of my characters and for so many real-life audiences of Happy Days, the story of this play continues to resonate: a woman grappling with the everyday and the existential on a dying, ruthless earth.
• The Performance by Claire Thomas is out now through Hachette